A couple of years ago, I was asked to write a collection of research stories for a university’s 25th anniversary publication. The money was good, the deadlines manageable, but I hesitated about accepting.
Why? Because some of the research topics appealed to me: cyberstalking, why women cry at work and how Antarctic explorers develop resilience, for example. Others – like coral reef protection, smart meter technology and the cognitive processes involved in reading – didn’t really light me up. I’m not saying those topics aren’t interesting full stop – I’m sure they’re fascinating for some. It’s just when a subject doesn’t inspire you personally, it can be more difficult to be creative.
I went for it in the end, but the experience was a reminder that good writing isn’t about talent (although a little natural flair does help). It’s about showing up and doing the work (even when you don’t feel like it) and finding the drama in every situation.
Here are my tips for writing interesting copy about topics that bore you:
1. Start with a story
Everyone loves stories.
And wherever there’s people, you’ll find drama and emotion – both vital for hooking readers in…and keeping them with you.
So whether you’re writing about smart meter technology or cyberstalking you’ll find people with real experiences who can bring your writing to life.
Take this article I wrote for the Guardian on cuts to further education funding for 16 to 18 year olds, for example:
Opening with an explanation of the proposed cuts would have been pretty dull. Telling a story – in this case with an ‘against the odds’ narrative – makes it instantly more compelling.
When I was researching this article about coral-reef preservation, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to bring the topic alive. So I asked the academic to describe to me the most dramatic moment in his research. His reply gave me the opening line of the piece:
All of a sudden, this enormous bang went off. I thought my tank had exploded or something. A bomb had been thrown into the water, over one of the coral reef sites we were monitoring. I look around and everything was dead: fish, corals…it was tragic,” says Professor James Crabbe, as he recalls a diving trip in the Wakatobi National Park, a marine national park, south of Sulawesi island of Indonesia.
2. Paint pictures with words
Consider the difference between the following (from the example below):
‘He tried to escape from school.’
‘He started running out of the building and climbing over the surrounding walls.’
‘His mother had to restrain him’
‘I found myself lying on top of him, trying to restrain him, while the teachers looked on in horror.’
In both cases, the second is more compelling because it creates a visual image for the reader, rather than describing what happened.
So if you want to engage with readers, show don’t tell.
3. Land your reader in the action
When I was writing about resilience in Antarctic explorers (a topic I found fascinating but knew wouldn’t necessarily be so for others) I used a common technique to draw readers into a narrative – landing them right in the action.
Imagine taking a 2000 mile journey across a treacherous landscape, in near permanent darkness, with temperatures dropping close to -90c. As well as the physical demands of skiing, climbing and transporting equipment in extreme weather conditions, there would be worries about loved ones back home, the pressures of living in a confined space with other people and boredom to contend with. So what motivates people to deliberately seek out challenging situations like this and how do they develop the resilience to cope?
You can do this in all sorts of ways, like using an imperative (or command) as I did:
(Phrases like ‘picture this’ or ‘stop what you’re doing’ can also work well).
‘You guys ready for a total snoozefest?’
Or you can place them right in the scene, so they can picture events as they unfold. Like this:
Landing your reader right in the action is not only great for making complex topics accessible, it can also create a sense of immediacy that is compelling to readers – as in this story about hydro-electricity.
The opening quote: “She’s a thirsty bitch, but she’ll keep you warm mind” draws in the reader (as do the personal reflections e.g. ‘we traded the jeep for a Prius, dug a vegetable patch’ and ‘you can’t type if your fingers are numb’).
4. Circle back at the end
A good piece of writing should have a satisfying end. That doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending; it can be a question or interesting point for readers to ponder. But if you’ve opened with a tale, revisiting that story – or its characters – can create an effective ending.
Like the final paragraph of this article
5. Write knockout headlines
Around 80% of people will read a headline but only 20% of people will read what follows – so hooking your readers in with a great headline is vital. While there’s no magic formula for headline writing (it’s really about understanding your audience: what works for one group of readers could completely bomb with another) there are some techniques that seem to work with most. These are:
Chalk and cheese (putting unlikely ideas together)
Numbers (especially if they’re odd or a bit random)
49 words you should avoid in your press releases (my most popular post, ever)
6. Don’t be serious or ‘corporate’
You may be writing for your website, company report or blog, but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring.
Don’t be afraid to show emotion – or as Neil Patel suggests in this excellent post on how to make your boring trade blog interesting – attitude, even.
Writing in the first person (that’s ‘I’ or ‘me’) can be very engaging. In fact using ‘we’ or ‘us’ not only sounds stuffy and corporate – it can actually distance you from your reader.
7. Create ‘little miracles’
I love this blog post from Alexandra Franzen, where she suggests writers shouldn’t think about crafting blog posts, or product launch copy (or whatever it is they’re writing). Instead they should create little miracles.
So think about the audience you’re writing for, imagine what would feel like a miracle for them right now…then give them exactly that.
This could be:
– A story idea that is exactly right for a journalist’s audience, will fill a hole in their page/schedule (and allow them to leave the office earlier)
– An ‘about page’ that shows how you can help your site visitors (rather than boasting about how brilliant you are)
– An executive summary or company report that entertains readers rather than being something they just have to read for their job.
Franzen delves more deeply into the idea, but the takeaway message for me is this: write with the needs of your audience in mind – not your own – and you’re far more likely to make a connection. Which is what great writing is all about.